A new Northern Access Television History sub-site is coming VERY soon, to celebrate the group’s 30th Anniversary!  We are working on this at the moment, and will end with the release of a TV Special in June 2020 and a book in November 2020.  Stay tuned for details of the new site soon……..

Test Transmission Video – About The Station (1991)
This video, shot in 1991, gives an insight into NAT as a Test Broadcaster (VIDEO: Nigel Slater)


Testing Times – A brief history of Northern Access TV

Michael Costello

With the current C31 service becoming a fixture in Melbourne, it is almost forgotten that Community TV started out as a “suburban affair”, much like the suburban based Community Radio stations that sprung up to serve local areas within Melbourne. The first Community TV service in Melbourne was a “pirate” one transmitted to the Western Suburbs by TVU. Frustration at not being able to obtain a temporary licence led them to take this step. Finally in 1987, RMITV Student Television became the first group to obtain a temporary transmission permit, and then began a series of Test Transmissions that would see Community TV broadcast into a handful of suburbs around Melbourne. Other groups that took on the challenge of Test Transmissions included SKA TV who broadcast to St.Kilda, RAT TV (now Yarra Access), who broadcast to Richmond and ERA TV who broadcast to small parts of the Eastern Suburbs. Test Transmissions varied in length. Some went for a week, others just for a weekend. Test Transmissions had varied success – the main problem being that because of their low power they were difficult for anyone to receive. Also, because people’s antennas are aimed at Mt Dandenong, most antennas were not pointed correctly to the suburban transmitter sites. However, for those who could receive them, there was the ‘magic’ of having another station for the weekend!

Northern Access TV began its Test Transmissions in 1990 as a “School Community Development Project”, when a number of teachers from schools in the Preston area saw the potential of television as a communication tool between the schools and the general community. NAT’s first Test Transmissions were filled with videos produced by students of the schools involved, as well as videos on what the schools were doing to improve education in their communities. Before too long through, the need to form an incorporated group to gain further transmission permits saw the group hold a public meeting and open up involvement to the Northern Suburbs community as a whole. But NAT was to maintain close links with schools throughout this time, and content produced by students continued to be a major part of the landscape.

NAT’s transmissions were beamed live from the studios of Preston Secondary College to a transmitter based at Victory Transport in Heidelberg. From there, the signal was broadcast on UHF 31 to homes in the Preston, Reservoir and West Heidelberg areas. The limited production equipment held by the school was supplemented by equipment loaned by a number of electronics businesses. One aspect of early NAT that we prided ourselves on was our deliberate decision to adopt the half-inch tape formats available at the time for our broadcast masters. Our argument was that as domestic camcorders and VHS machines was readily accessible to many people at that time, using these technologies would provide the maximum access for our community. Many other Test Broadcasters used semi-professional gear as their broadcast standard, which was extremely expensive at this time.

In all it is believed that NAT achieved around 10 Test Transmissions in the early 1990s. The Test Transmissions were lively affairs, and a constant feature of many of them was a live presenter urging people to come down to the studio and have a go at whatever they wanted to do. And people responded! Many people most likely had their first experience as Camera Operators, Vision Switchers or Tape Operators with NAT during the Test Transmissions! And of course, they would be asked to sign up as members or supporters of the group, and at its peak, NAT had upwards of 200 members. A wide variety of content was broadcast during the Test Transmissions, sourced from various different producers. The wide variety of content screened added to the appeal of the broadcasts for the limited number of people who could view them. A small library of VHS tapes from the Test Transmissions allows our current members to gain an insight into the workings of the group in this period, and it is hoped to make efforts to preserve these aging tapes, which provide windows into our early broadcasts.

But as fun as the test transmissions were for all involved, thoughts were quickly turning to the future of Community TV in Melbourne. It soon became clear that if there was going to be a Community TV station in Melbourne, there would only be one licence issued. Common sense prevailed and the pioneer groups got together to form the Melbourne Community Television Consortium we know today. In 1994, the aim of the consortium to obtain an extended trial of Community TV was realised. In order to overcome the problems of people not being able to pick up the Test Transmissions, the decision was taken to broadcast from the TV Towers at Mt.Dandenong. This opened up a wider audience for Community TV, and for many people it was a pleasant surprise to finally be able to receive a Community TV Broadcast.

A number of features of our early Test Transmissions were to become major features of the early days of Channel 31 Melbourne. On most of the Tests, NAT produced a live to air news program “NAT News”. This involved volunteers going out into the community and asking questions on the hot topics around the Northern Suburbs, and bringing the footage back to be edited and played to air. This was considered important at the time, as it generated a public awareness of the station, and with any luck, the people interviewed hopefully tried to tune us in when they got home! Many people in professional journalism today got their start on our news program as presenters or script writers for our news program. Another feature of the Test Transmissions was live to air interviews of various community members, often followed by taped segments also on the topic of that group. These two features of the test transmissions were to become the “NAT News” and “NAT Chat” programs on early Channel 31 transmissions.

With the aim of Melbourne wide broadcasting achieved, NAT itself was entering a new era. We moved from Preston Secondary College to Thornbury-Darebin Secondary College and through the generous support of members and the community, we were able to build up our “Video Access Studio” in partnership with the school. This also brought in the video taped era at NAT. Although the spontaneity of the Test Transmissions was gone, the focus was on improving the quality of our output for the new Melbourne-wide broadcasts. A solid number of crew turned up each week to produce the group’s flagship “NAT News” and to shoot episodes of the “NAT Chat” program. These two staples of NAT’s output continued for quite some time on air, and continued to provide our communities with great opportunities to participate in Community Television. In addition to the programs produced in the studio, a number of other programs were produced by individual members using their own facilities, and submitted for broadcast via our group.

Members of NAT were to take on key roles in the development of the combined Channel 31 service, and a handful went on to become staff members of the new station. Volunteers from the groups also were active in many volunteer roles of the time, including working in the live to air presentation room at RMITand previewing programs for compliance with station policies.

In addition to the flagship programs, various other ideas would come from our members for new programs. Some of them would fall through, others would start production and a few of them actually made it to air. By today’s standards, production facilities were primitive. Most programs were being produced by editing between two tape machines, and if you were lucky, you had an Amiga computer and genlock to add some very basic titles and effects to your program as you dubbed between machines. In this environment, it was understandable that many projects didn’t quite meet the dreams of their producers. But Community TV producers learned to be inventive, and many projects were able to achieve great results with the limited equipment of the day.

Very soon, a number of things were to have an impact on the group and what it produced. Our relationship with Thornbury-Darebin Secondary College went sour, and soon we found ourselves with nowhere to go. A number of other groups were in the same situation, so Channel 31 resolved to rent a building in 32 Lonsdale St in the City which became known as the “Member Group Building”. NAT moved into an office here, as did SKA, the Chinese group ATVAA and gay group Bent TV. A studio was built up in the new building cobbled together from surplus equipment from the station and the tenant groups. But it could be best described as “makeshift”. With NAT losing use of the fairly reliable studio at TDSC, coming in to the environment at 32 Lonsdale was a heart breaking experience for all of us. The studio equipment wasn’t in the best of condition, leading to fairly consistent breakdowns and interruptions to production. Also, the pressure of not having the studio to ourselves led to pressures to work to tight deadlines in order to hand the studio over to other users. Very soon the combined pressures were taking its toll on our volunteers, and slowly the number of willing volunteers to produce Northern Community News and NAT Chat dropped down to a die-hard few. A hard decision had to be taken, and soon Northern Community News came to its final episode. Soon after, NAT Chat also ceased production. So you could say, this ended our “studio” era with big crews.

New programs were developed to take their place based on field shoots. These were all edited on the equipment we shared in the Member Group Building. For the small number of volunteers who worked in this building, we all look back fondly on this time. Volunteers from the various groups got to know each other, and we offered each other encouragement as we went about our editing.

Financial constraints on Channel 31 would eventually see the Member Group Building close. But technology was rapidly developing, and before too long C31 producers were experimenting with the new Mini DV cameras that became available and PC and Mac based Non-Linear video editing. Production of programs all of a sudden was possible to a very high standard from the comfort of your home office. This period saw NAT’s program production move into the field and edited in private homes. Rather than having a large number of people working on one show, producers developed their own small crews to work on their projects. With the flagship programs gone, the group membership started to fall.

Very soon through, it wasn’t long before we started working out new ways of using the new equipment various members had bought. Soon we worked out that with the aid of portable lighting, the various cameras we all owned and a simple video mixer, we could set up a Church Hall to shoot programs. This led to the revival of NAT Chat, and also spurred on the production of similar chat programs.

Channel 31 was to move various times over the coming years, but in many of the locations, they again provided a simple studio for the use of the Member Groups. In tandem with the method above, we also shot a number of programs in these studios, and many of our current programs are produced in the present day studios of C31.

As we move into the present day, excitement is again building at NAT. Though an arrangement with the proprietors of the Noise Bar in Brunswick, NAT again has a local home base, and we are slowly building up a studio for the use of the Community. The move into the Noise Bar has seen NAT take on strong links with local musos. NAT is also very close to going back to its roots in that we will be broadcasting live from the new Noise Bar studios in the near future. Who knows, we might even appeal for people to come in and have a go just like we did on the Test Transmissions!

It has been a long journey for our group, with many ups and downs. But the small numbers of people that make up NAT today are still keen to find new ways of serving our community and giving people a chance to participate in Television Production. We all have special reasons for being part of the group, but at the end of the day, we are more than willing to help someone else achieve their dreams as well. Many of us will do just about anything to help the latest NAT project succeed. That makes the group what it is today.

We are all proud of the role we have had in developing Community TV in Melbourne. NAT stands tall as a long time partner in the Melbourne Community Television Consortium, and we look forward to continuing that relationship no matter where technology takes us.